Ricky Rubio is one of the league’s most controversial players. Both the “eye-test” and stats reveal the pros and cons of his game, and different narratives fly all over the place from arguments about whether he can thrive in the playoffs to the importance of a pass-first vs shoot-first point guard.
At the core level, it all boils down to the fact that Rubio is bad at putting the basketball through the net. This problem has dogged him throughout his career and is the central argument against why he should be the Timberwolves point guard of the future.
This has been discussed time and time again among sports writers and NBA analysts, including articles from Zach Lowe like this one and this one, and by local writers—such as Britt Robson's constant defense of Rubio's place with the Wolves, or Jim Souhan’s anti-intellectual takedown of his value. There is certainly significant division on Rubio’s value, although Canis Hoopus often serves as a safe haven for those who believe in his prowess.
Part of the issue is whether new Wolves management—primarily Tom Thibodeau and Scott Layden—views Rubio as part of the future. The fear is that Rubio will be moved for lesser value and the team will be left with a significant downgrade at point guard; fears most recently fanned even higher around the draft as the organization was shopping Rubio according to Woj. Then they went and drafted the highest-ranked point guard prospect in the draft.
Minnesota has been shopping Ricky Rubio throughout the week. His future in Minnesota is likely coming to an end.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojVerticalNBA) June 24, 2016
The rationale behind moving him is that, while he is an excellent player, his woeful shooting places a ceiling on the potential of the team. I think it's worth examining this root assumption: that Rubio's shooting is a problem.
This is a long piece, so as a precursor reward...
It’s out of the scope of this piece to reiterate how amazing Rubio is in other aspects of the game such as his defense, passing ability, or general offensive wizardry. Many other eloquent writers have delved into this topic, including Canis Hoopus' own John Meyer, who wrote this excellent piece during last season, which does a tremendous job of showing how the numbers capture Rubio's on-the-court impact. Rubio has consistently impressed and this is measured by several basic and advanced metrics. Last year, he was among the league leaders in assists per game (5th), steals per game (2nd), and assists to turnover ratio (7th). These are not accidents. These stats demonstrate his extraordinarily high value on the court, playing a position that depends more than just scoring points.
However, none of that matters when we specifically examine his shooting. Rubio is infamously the worst shooter in the history of the modern NBA. No player since 1979-1980 has played more than 5,000 minutes while shooting a worse percentage than his 36.5 percent. Of course, an NBA player must be making a significant impact on the court to reach the 5,000-minute mark, so many worse shooters than Rubio have appeared, but simply haven’t lasted.
From a team-building standpoint, it would obviously be much easier for the Wolves if he was a better shooter. The effectiveness of point guards who can shoot threes at a high percentage and create their own shot is undeniable. There is no better example than Steph Curry’s ability to bend the defense to his will due to his shooting ability. The Timberwolves themselves are clearly cognizant of Rubio's specific woes, as they brought in shooting specialist Mike Penberthy in the past to help address his shooting mechanics. The franchise also recently brought in Peter Patton to be a full-time shooting coach for the team. Patton attributes his shooting knowledge to mentor Chip Engelland, who is a world renown shooting coach for the San Antonio Spurs.
The basic career numbers for Rubio are 38.4 percent inside the arc and 31.8 percent behind it. This gives him a field goal percentage of 36.8; these numbers have been pretty stagnant throughout his career. League-wide, the averages are 49.1 percent from the field and 35.4 percent from beyond the arc. These basic stats are often used to highlight his inefficiency at shooting.
Unusually enough, given his struggles, he’s a good free throw shooter (81.5 percent over his career.) For the most part, bad jump shooters are bad free throw shooters. Most other point guards that shoot the ball poorly have difficulty from the charity stripe. Rajon Rondo (60.6 percent), Elfrid Payton (56.9 percent), and Michael-Carter Williams (69 percent) fall into this category.
Rubio also shoots substantially better in the first quarter, and often looks for his own shots early in the contest as compared to the rest of the game. His field goal percentage last season was 44 percent in the first quarter but it quickly drops to 30 percent in the second, 36.5 percent in the third, and finally 39 percent in the fourth.
Strangely, his three-point shooting also drops drastically in the second quarter to 17 percent. Rubio has publicly said this is due to fatigue as he goes through the game and this is likely has to do with his unrelenting defense as well; he’s one of the most hyperactive on-ball defenders in the league. The utter lack of seeking his own shot as the game goes on probably impacts these percentages as well.
This is from Rubio in an interview with Britt Robson:
"But of course in the first quarter I am more focused and I have fresh legs. Usually players like to get easy in the game and I realized as a point guard for a young team as we were, coming off a bad start, and I wanted to lead by example, like I said, and so to be aggressive from the beginning trying to do my own thing and get some shots up in the beginning."
The implication here is that Rubio's energy level plays an important part in his declining percentages. This will be something to keep an eye on this year as he will hopefully have a decent backup point guard in rookie Kris Dunn, which could mean he feels like he doesn’t have to carry the defensive weight quite as much. On the other hand, new Head Coach Tom Thibodeau is notorious for overextending his players, which might have a negative effect on Rubio’s energy and thus shooting percentages as games, and the season, goes on.
Now let’s take a deeper dive into his shooting numbers.
Breaking Down Rubio’s Shooting Numbers
From Kirk Goldsberry all the way back in 2013:
Last year, Rubio shot 51.7 percent at rim. This was a marked improvement from the data shown above. It’s higher than his usual averages and shows a slight improvement, as he is usually in the mid-high 40s around the restricted area. His struggles at the rim are the most overlooked problem in his scoring ability—the broken jumper is always cited—and is certainly a legitimate criticism of his game.
There are actually a significant number of below-average shooters in the league whose overall numbers are buoyed by strong percentages at the rim. Rajon Rondo is one of these cases. His 45.4 shooting percentage last year is due in large part to his 64 percent at the rim. If Rondo’s numbers drop down to Rubio's shooting percentage at the rim, his overall two-point field goal percentage falls to around 40.5 percent.
Another part of Rubio's problem is that he is a terrible shooter from some of the most popular spots of the floor for a point guard, around the 10-16 feet range, or right around the elbows. Point guards often have free range from these spots on the floor, even if they are not consider efficient looks. This is the sweet spot immediately after a pick-and-roll that’s wide-open if the guard goes under the screen or the big man doesn’t hedge hard enough to stop the guard from driving into the lane.
In 2015-2016, Rubio shot 23 percent from this range. However, it’s likely that Rubio and the Timberwolves are quite aware of his difficulties from this region as his attempts are very low; he only took 48 shots on the year. In comparison, Chris Paul loves this range; he attempted 222 shots from here and does a ton of damage from 10-16 feet.
Much to the chagrin of Timberwolves fans, Rubio's highest number of shot attempts come from the long-two range. This is 16 feet to the three-point line, and he shot 38.5 percent from here last season. This isn't a comparatively terrible number, but the amount of attempts are undesirable. Rubio took 197 shots from here, which is a similar number to Jeff Teague, but the latter has more of an offensive burden. Furthermore, Rubio's shots from this range are assisted 36.8 percent of the time, whereas Paul and Teague are assisted from this range at rates of 7.6 percent and 11.1 percent respectively. These are players who are often creating their own shot, usually in a pick-and-roll scenario. Rubio, on the other hand, is spotting-up on a little over a third of these long-twos.
Taking a significant number of spot-up long-twos has been a hallmark of the Wolves offense over the last couple of years, and it’s far from ideal. Consider that Rubio shoots 32.5 percent from three-point range. Now this is a bad place to be, but it isn't the end of the world, as his percentage is similar to useful scorers such as Kyrie Irving, Jamal Crawford, and Brandon Jennings.
His effective field goal percentage on three-pointers is 49 percent. That is substantially higher than the long-twos he’s taking, and half of those shots are already within a spot-up environment. While the long-twos will never completely disappear, it is likely that in a more three-friendly and space-oriented system, Rubio's advanced shooting percentages and offensive worth strictly from shooting should increase.
An interesting point to note, to be further discussed later on, is that 90 percent of Rubio's three-point shots are assisted. This is an unusually high number for a player who has the ball in their hands for so much of the game. In fact, the assist percentage is much closer to point guards who do not initiate the offensive sets, such as Patrick Beverley (84.3 percent) with the Rockets and Mario Chalmers (93 percent) while he was playing with LeBron in Miami.
Rubio and Rajon Rondo
No player fully more fully encompasses the same problems that have plagued Rubio than Rajon Rondo, and Rondo’s fall from grace has been sudden and precipitous. Rondo went from being perhaps the best-player on a team with three future hall of famers in Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen, to a journeyman who was essentially kicked off the Mavericks after a disastrous spell, floundered on an imploding Kings team, and now is with the Bulls where Fred Hoiberg will somehow try to make a lineup of Rondo, Dwyane Wade, and Jimmy Butler work. Rondo has been one of the examples of how the league’s embrace of three-point shooting and spacing has left some players completely behind.
But this was not always so. Rondo was previously seen as one of best players in the league during the Celtics championship runs and was an integral factor to their success.
The numbers back up the comparison between Rubio and Rondo very well. Seth Partnow, formerly of Nylon Calculus and Hardwood Paroxsym and now of the Milwaukee Bucks, created a “point guard personality matrix” in 2014, which mapped point guards based on their style of play. The four main factors were their pass vs. shoot statistics and likelihood of driving to the basket in comparison to “probing” the defense. While this is an imperfect science, it still helps us understand the players, and you can read the excellent article in its entirety here.
Unsurprisingly, Rubio and Rondo are extraordinarily similar players. While Rondo has distinct advantages over Rubio in his ability to attack the basket and finish at the rim—which should not be overlooked—stylistically both players suggest a similar team-building model.
Thankfully, there is already a coach out there who has spent significant time working with Rondo and has expounded his views on the subject while on Bill Simmons podcast last year. That coach is none other than the current President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach of the Timberwolves Tom Thibodeau. The new Wolves’ leader spoke on this subject on Bill Simmons’ podcast during his basketball hiatus last season.
(Conversation edited during transcription for clarity)
Bill Simmons: “I think that the biggest change for me, it does not seem to me that you can can succeed anymore if two of your guys of the five out there cannot shoot. In ‘08 when the Celtics used to play Rondo and Perkins together ... I think those teams would be defended a lot differently.”
Thibs: “I agree totally, it is much harder today to hide two non-shooters, but you can hide one. Rondo is so unique, as long as you have shooting on the floor with Rondo you can start a game that way. But to finish in the 4th quarter, you better make sure you have shooting on the floor. In Boston in ‘08, I thought Doc did a terrific job with Rajon, particularly late in games and it was unique. If the ball was in Rondo’s hands it is much harder to cheat off of him and we did things were it was difficult to go under on him.
When he gave the ball up we would position him down on the baseline, and oftentimes in our offense Garnett was guy that was back on the top of the key and that was an area in which he was so effective in shooting the ball for us, so what we did, and it was a lot different than most teams, in defensive transition, we didn’t have Kevin go to the offensive boards we had him get back and basically take Rajon’s responsibility from him and protecting the basket. Because Rajon was on the baseline, we allowed him to go after offensive rebounds ... the other thing that it allowed us to do was establish our ball pressure up the floor a lot higher and so that worked very effectively for us.
We wanted to make sure our defensive transition was real strong, and Kevin is a defense unto himself. Rajon was terrific up the floor, we did some things in which we would allows us to deny the point guard, because he wasn’t falling back first and then having to come up, he was already up, we found that to be very effective for us.”
If one squints hard enough, there is the bare bones of that Celtics team with this Timberwolves roster.
Karl-Anthony Towns does not have the foot speed of Kevin Garnett to play at the top of the key, but he is a highly mobile big that can adequately switch on to guards on a pick-and-roll. Andrew Wiggins’ game is not entirely dissimilar to Paul Pierce’s mid-range centric offensive game as well as his reliance on strength based moves. Zach LaVine’s shooting ability, while not close to matching the threat of Ray Allen’s shooting, provides the three-point shooting threat and spacing ability. Even Gorgui Dieng fits the do-all role that Kendrick Perkins provided, with better shooting and fewer assaults.
Now the Timberwolves’ young core has a long way to go to match three Hall of Famers, but the structures are there, as well as the knowledge of how to use a player like Rubio in these situations. Thibodeau has already seen how effective it can be once, there is no reason to believe he cannot make it work again.
Rubio’s Value as a Shooter
The argument for why Ricky Rubio is not a burden on offense is typically tied to his true shooting percentage of 53 percent, which is higher than many players who are seen as stronger threats with the ball than he is. This is essentially pointing out that while Rubio does not finish at the basket at a high rate, he is extremely effective at picking his spots on his drives, as he draws fouls at an elite rate, with a free throw rate (number of free throws attempted per field goal attempt) of 53.6 percent. This is a definite skill and something that should be incorporated in our understanding of his offensive capabilities.
The “playoff defense” argument, of course, is not solved by Rubio’s ability to drive and draw fouls if we agree that refs allow a more physicality in the postseason and are less likely to call fouls.
We see this in end-of-game scenarios where referees are more likely to allow physical basketball. Rubio, as well as many former teammates on that ill-fated 2013-2014 team, has difficulties scoring in these situations, which led to a host of close losses and might have cost them a playoff spot. What the true shooting numbers suggest is that Rubio’s shooting woes are somewhat mitigated by his elite ability to get to the free throw line, but not totally eliminated.
After examining his shooting woes, there are still two core problems that remain.
1) Rubio does not create his own shot, which creates spacing problems
One of Rubio's challenges is that he is often unwilling or unable to create his own shot off the dribble. We saw this above with his significantly higher level of assisted shots from long two and three-point range as compared to other point guards.
Intelligent defenses can make a safe assumption that Rubio is not going to pull up for an off-the-dribble three-point shot on a high pick-and-roll and can safely sag into the paint and cut off passing lanes as well as the ability of the roll man to dive to the basket. This makes Rubio something of a singular player among point guards, as the players that are relatively similar in offensive creation are taking a much higher proportion of shots by themselves. Those whose three-point shooting assist percentages match Rubio are primarily off-ball players.
In contrast to Rubio’s skills, we have seen in the last several years how important it is for guards, and especially point guards, to be able to create their own shot off the dribble as well as from behind the three-point line. Stephen Curry is, again, the ultimate example of this, as he is able to warp defenses around the fear of him pulling up from three after a high screen.
High pick-and-rolls have also proven to be one of the most highly effective offensive sets right now in the NBA and the Wolves will have one of the best rollers in the NBA with Karl-Anthony Towns and his threat to roll to the basket or pop out and shoot from range. To fully utilize his skills, he will be involved in a lot of pick-and-rolls with Rubio. Oftentimes, Rubio will use this space to probe the defense, driving to the basket in hopes of pulling a defender off his man and then delivering the pass in the opening. However, Rubio becomes instantly more valuable if the defense also must be concerned about him pulling up and shooting.
Right now, this is not the case. Defenses will duck under screens and let Rubio take that open jump shot, which then creates the spacing difficulties. Spacing is king and Rubio's lack of ability or willingness to take the shot off the dribble is problematic. Anecdotally, this becomes even more of a problem during the fourth quarter when teams will ignore him entirely.
This is one of the main arguments against Rubio and the Wolves working out together in the long-term. As teams are able to key in on match-ups during the playoffs they will ignore Rubio and go under every pick, sagging into the lane, and cutting off passing lanes. In the past few years this issue has been exacerbated by the Wolves and their refusal to reformat their offense to the modern era, so it is challenging to truly assess how much of an issue this will be. However, we do have examples with Jeff Teague on the Hawks, Rondo on the Celtics, or even LeBron on the Cavaliers.
The LeBron correlation—while not immediately apparent—is actually somewhat applicable. LeBron is most dangerous when he is surrounded by shooters that he can pass to when defenses collapse on him when he either drives or is posting up. In the same way, Rubio's value is maximized when he can pass to shooters or cutters. Rubio will never have as much gravitational pull on defenses as "good shooters", nor the fear that LeBron instills in a defense when he drives, but his stronger passing skills will likely mitigate this issue as long as he is surrounded by adequate shooting, which is where Towns comes in. The threat of a stretch five is real and as much as Rubio will make Towns better, the same will hold true of defenses overplaying Towns and leaving Rubio with even easier shots.
If this spacing problem persists in the future we may see more of Zach LaVine with the ball in his hands and Rubio in the corner. If Rubio's corner three-point shooting can keep defenses somewhat honest then LaVine on the ball would force the defense to more heavily invest in guarding the pick-and-roll tighter. Of course we’ve seen the downside of this (LaVine’s decision-making), but if this model works it may finally lay to rest the "was it worth it to watch 1.5 years of LaVine at point guard” question.
2. What if Wiggins can't shoot?
Now this is what I consider the real problem. Rubio is likely going to be a poor shooter for his career, barring an unlikely Jason Kidd-esque renaissance from the three-point range. However, if Andrew Wiggins' late season three-point percentage surge is just an aberration and if he remains a poor three-point shooter for his career, Rubio and Wiggins may not be the best fit long-term. Last season, especially early, we were forced to slog through late fourth quarter isolation sets for Wiggins that produced limited results.
After a few games of Wiggins spinning his way through the lane, defenses figured out they can force Wiggins into a contested long-two quite easily. This issue had many causal factors, from Sam Mitchell’s play design to Wiggins’ difficulties with court vision and playmaking. Teams packed the paint, not fearing a kick-out to Rubio for the three-point shot. This situation was gloriously subverted against the Oklahoma City Thunder when Wiggins drove, kicked out to an open Rubio, who promptly sunk the shot for the last-second victory. If there is a true chance for the current roster construction succeeding, this represents it.
But what if it was an aberration, nothing more that a glimpse of what could be? What if Wiggins’ shooting ability was a mirage, a hot streak accompanying the larger offensive hot streak of the Timberwolves during that post All-Star break period? The Wolves will then have two non-shooters in the lineup and thus a choice, and the front office will certainly value the potential and capabilities of Wiggins rather than Rubio, especially with his potential replacement already holding a roster spot. If the late fourth-quarter solution of LaVine at point guard is what we are potentially proposing as the option when teams are determined to sag off of Rubio, then does that model work if the kick-out options are two poor three-point shooters?
This is, unfortunately, where any sort of answer becomes little more than conjecture. There are too many variables up in the air, from Wiggins’ shooting ability, front office player evaluations, to the end result of the power forward position.
There are certainly areas that we can examine early on this season to see if improvements are being made, namely to watch for how well Rubio is able to finish near the basket, as he has been getting better at this on a gradual pace year-by-year, as well as seeing his three-point shooting percentages from the corner as the kick-out option. The late fourth-quarter sets will be particularly illuminating to see how Thibodeau schemes up ways for the team to score, as well as who he trusts to make those plays.
What we have now is promise. Rubio could actually be the perfect point guard for this young team, as the post All-star break team showed us glimpses of the sheer offensive firepower that the team has at its disposal when things are clicking. The current roster is full of high-usage athletes who are complimented by one of the best pass-first point guard in the league. On the defensive end of the court, there seems no more perfect marriage between Rubio’s defensive prowess and intellect, and Tom Thibodeau’s demands for effort and execution.
So to all of those worrying about Rubio’s potential fit with the team, as well as the so-called “playoff-defenses,” all I can say is...